Kirchner Declares War on Judicial Independence

EspañolTwo weeks ago, the Argentinean government declared open war against the judiciary. “The judicial power is engaged in an ongoing coup,” claimed Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich. As the end of President Cristina Kirchner’s term in office approaches, the government is increasingly drawing battle lines, desperate to avoid facing corruption charges.

After 10 years of passivity, Argentinean judges and investigators have decided to launch proceedings against government officials plagued by suspicions of corruption. The lame-duck syndrome is encouraging magistrates to investigate the money-laundering schemes and illegal profiteering that dominated the Kirchner era.

La presidente Cristina Kirchner encabeza una batalla contra el Poder Judicial para evitar afrontar las consecuencias por la corrupción que caracterizó a su Gobierno
President Cristina Kirchner has launched a campaign against the judiciary following alleged widespread corruption during her term in office. (Culture Ministry of Argentina)

The first shot was fired in the latest stage of the conflict between state and judiciary, which has been simmering for over 18 months, when accusations were made involving a company owned by Kirchner. The center-left deputy Margarita Stolbizer denounced in November alleged irregularities in the documentation of Hotesur S.A, a firm which manages the Alto Calafate hotel.

Although Stolbizer’s accusation only pointed to a simple administrative error — the company had not presented accounts to commercial audit authority the Inspector General of Justice (ICG) for three years — a subsequent journalistic investigation suggested that the hotel could have been used to launder money gained through corruption. The PanAm Post reported the following in November:

According to the investigations, [Lázaro] Báez rented almost 1,000 rooms per month to the president’s companies during 2010 and 2011. The manager employed to represent the companies since the Kirchners’ rise to power paid AR$10 million (worth around US$2.5 million in 2010) for the rent of 935 rooms per month over two years, independently of whether they were occupied or not and irrespective of whether it was high season or low. The judge suspected the arrangement could have been used to launder money earned through corrupt activities.

Kirchneristas Return Fire

Luis D’elía, a former minister in the administration of the late Néstor Kirchner, “symbolically” called for the head of Claudio Bonadío, the judge in charge of the ongoing investigation of irregularities in the presidential company in Buenos Aires federal courts.

In the face of the coup, we should symbolically have Bonadío’s head on a pike on a sidewalk in Comodoro Py. Recall now!

The operation to discredit the judge and his investigation has gone to the highest levels of power. Sergio Urribari, governor of Entre Ríos province and a presidential candidate, labelled the proceedings against Hotesur a “clear attempt at blackmail,” while the president of the Chamber of Deputies Julián Dominguez accused the magistrate of wanting to “damage the prestige” of the presidency.

The chief of the Kirchnerista bloc in the chamber, Juliana Di Tullio, linked the federal judge with the opposition candidate to the presidency, Sergio Massa, and deputy Edgardo Depetri spoke of a “disgraceful and deceitful operation aimed at blackening the name of Cristina Kirchner.”

The president of the National Magistrates Association, Ricardo Recondo, summed up the situation perfectly: “The judge who investigates is persecuted; the judge who helps cover things up is rewarded.” For Recondo, “the country and democracy are under serious threat,” because “the government is guilty of many antidemocratic activities,” and “using democracy to destroy democracy.”

Not Just Tough Talk

The chain of events following the criticisms of Bonadío illustrate the languishing state of the republic. On Tuesday, December 2, the Council of Magistrates — the body in charge of promoting and regulating judges — decided to punish Bonadío with a 30 percent cut in his salary.

The motive? The council argued that the judge had taken too long to process two cases, unlinked with the investigations against President Kirchner. It’s a risible argument, given that the judiciary is so overwhelmed with cases and poorly managed that even the buildings in which judges work are at risk of collapse.

Nevertheless, Julián Alvarez, vice-minister for Justice and the representative of the executive to the council, even suggested suspending the judge and investigating him for “poor performance,” an ultimately unsuccessful initiative. Alvarez sought to make an example of Bonadío in the same way as public attorney José María Campagnoli, who was fired for daring to investigate the president’s arrangement with Hotesur. The government eventually relented and restored Campagnoli to his post.

Deputy Stolbizer, for her part, was the subject of several accusations of illicit profiteering, the same crime for which Cristina Kirchner and her late husband were being investigated. Despite the fact that the couple’s wealth rose by some 3,540 percent during their 11 years in government, federal judge Norberto Oyarbide absolved them of all charges.

The case of Oyarbide — who accumulated 47 corruption charges against him in the council — is emblematic of the state of the Argentinean judiciary under the Kirchners. The most high-profile proceedings involving officials accused of corruption were dropped, and in every case the modus operandi was almost exactly the same: officials were acquitted, and charges were shelved.

Silvina Martínez, a former official at the IGJ and a witness in the Hotesur case, also came under attack. A Kirchnerista deputy accused her of failing to carry out her duties properly and of giving false testimony.

Towards Judicial Control

Kirchner has always been aware that the judiciary could endanger her political project. In 2013, she proposed a reform which would have boosted the scope for political control of judges, if the Supreme Court had not ruled it unconstitutional.

In 2012, Vice President Amado Boudou, himself charged for illicit activity while acquiring the company responsible for the printing of the Argentinean currency, accused the then-attorney general, Esteban Righi, of being involved in drug trafficking. Boudou’s play was successful.

Following the accusation, the prosecutor dropped his investigation, and the case against him was in turn dismissed. Righi, however, could not prevent the vice president from being charged in two subsequent cases.

It’s highly unlikely that the president will end up in prison as a result of ongoing investigations. The end of the presidential term is usually accompanied by an agreement of immunity from prosecution with the incoming administration. Judicial cases are frozen in exchange for the promise of legislative support and less vociferous opposition against the future government.

However, if all else fails, there’s a plan B in place: Cristina Kirchner is tipped to join Parlasur — the representative body of regional trade bloc Mercosur — thus securing her immunity from future prosecution.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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